Some of you may remember him. He may have been your teacher.
For many years, Tom Auten taught at elementary schools in our area. First it was Chartville, then Clements and finally at Lockeford School.
Just back from an Army assignment, I met him in 1971. I got a job at Lockeford Elementary not really having a clear idea of what I was doing. In those days if you had a degree, you could get an emergency credential and become an instant teacher. I was given an eighth-grade class where I instructed English, civics, science, PE, as well as pretending I knew something about being a softball coach.
Being experienced in the classroom, including work as a principal at one time, Tom took me under his wing and made sure I survived the first year in adolescent no man’s land.
Soon we discovered we had common interests in cars and construction. Tom had some old rentals in Angels Camp where he grew up. He paid me on weekends to help maintain the structures. I certainly needed the money, as a $7,500 per year starting salary didn’t go too far — not even in those days.
But as my careers advanced in three different directions, I began to feed my passion, which was collectable cars. I had 42 of them over the years and Tom worked on several.
His favorites were my Chevys, as Tom was a GM mechanic back in the late 1940s.
But times had changed over 30 years and he almost blew it with his principal’s Cadillac. It had fuel injection and Tom was not familiar with the system.
I just happened to drive by and saw him about to dump a can of automatic transmission oil down the throttle body.
“Tom! What the heck are you doing? Don’t do that!” I yelled.
“This is how we cleaned out the carbon back in the old days,” he replied.
Fortunately, I stopped him just in time to prevent a major disaster and a very angry boss. He pretty much avoided working on modern cars for other people after that.
When I married my wife in 1978, Tom filled in as her surrogate father and gave her away. Over the years, he also helped us remodel our home in Morada.
Tom must have had angels sitting on his shoulders because I saw him cheat death so many times.
The first was a motorcycle trip at his second home in Guerneville. He was ahead of me zipping around mountain corners when suddenly, he disappeared. An old man and his wife were standing by their car on the wrong side of the road.
“Where’s my friend?” I frantically demanded!
He pointed to a wooded gully when I saw Tom emerging on his knees. With just a few scratches, he had survived that old fool cutting a blind corner in a big Ford. Amazing!
But that was not the only near-death episode I experienced of his. Once in Angels Camp, he fell off the roof when a rotten porch support gave way. Again, Tom brushed himself off and showed no worse for wear.
Yet these weren’t the most incredible. Not once, but twice I happened to be there when he choked, dropped a water glass that broke and passed out on the floor. Using the Heimlich maneuver I revived him both times. As far as I know, it never happened again.
We were pals for over 40 years and did many things together. Tom always liked mechanical and building challenges. If he hadn’t done it before, he would figure it out.
Tom didn’t have a lot of money because he was so devoted to spending his time helping other people he loved and cared about — especially his family.
I could never repay him for all the hours he spent working on my projects. Tom really liked my spouse and maybe that held more of his loyalty than I did. He used to say: “I’m doing this for your lady.”
But I did try to repay my friend by giving him a low mileage Honda street motorcycle and a Dodge Dakota pickup with a car phone. As I recall, Tom immediately removed the phone, as he wasn’t much into modern forms of communication.
Tom passed away in his early 90s a few weeks ago after a long struggle with age-related illnesses. A few months before, he had cheated death one last time by surviving COVID-19. He was one of the kindest and most thoughtful persons I ever met. He had a hard time saying “no” to anyone.
If there’s a heaven, there has to be a place for Tom. We’ll all miss him terribly.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.